By Dave White
Bastions of privacy, city clubs stand as an elegant transition point between business and pleasure, offering members the best opportunities in both work and play…entertaining friends, keeping fit, and forging new business connections.
The history of many city clubs throughout the world is compelling…years old gathering spots that today remain a focal point. Now with advanced technology and innovation, these hubs of activity are generating a renaissance in city clubs throughout the country.
“While we certainly utilize today’s technology and adapt to the speed by which we all live, we do so with keeping in mind that technology can never come at the expense of that personal-touch type of service that is the heart of our club,” enthused Matthew Allnatt, general manager/COO of the Jonathan Club of Los Angeles.
The Jonathan Club of Los Angeles and the Union League of Philadelphia, both BoardRoom Emerald Clubs of the World, are two of the country’s most outstanding city clubs, with an eye on the future.
“There has definitely been a rise in the use of more technology. We’ll be launching a new app and custom designed responsive to be even more engaged with our members, with push and texting notifications and online ordering for quick bites or drinks to have ready when our members arrive. We also have our own Uber-type service for transportation,” added Allnatt.
For the Union League of Philadelphia, one of the most significant change in the past two decades “is the involvement of spouses and families,” general manager Jeff McFadden expressed.
“Historically, the Union League was a gentlemen’s club and spouses and children were rarely seen,” McFadden recalled. “Today, spouses are here as much or more than members, and children are often present. Many of our events are structured around the family and we embrace and welcome this wonderful change,” he emphasized.
“We strongly believe in building the League of the future and that undoubtedly centers on enhancing our offerings through friction-free technology…that works in the background unbeknownst to the member, thus making it friction free and essentially mindless.
“Technology can’t just be managed; it really must be embraced. We believe that in order to continue to be relevant, we must be not only responsive, but proactive in our approach,” he explained.
This includes the League’s own custom website and app, and designated business center space in the League House and at the golf club, so members can work remotely with WiFi.
The Union League of Philadelphia staff takes the approach, “the answer is always yes, now tell us the question. It is by this mantra that employees embrace every situation and every interaction with a positive attitude and desire to exceed the highest expectations,” McFadden added.
“From our founding in 1862 right up to the present, the Union League and our members have always understood in order to live up to the motto, Love of Country Leads, we must be more than a great club, we must be a civic leader.
“In 154 years as a private club, the League has been a part of every war and crisis, enjoyed many events and activities with remarkable speakers and guests, contributed significantly to the community and enjoyed noteworthy achievements. There is an unwavering commitment to continued growth and a determination to continue to exceed even the highest expectations. We are humbled by our success and promise to be ever mindful of our values and sacred traditions while still trailblazing.”
So what of the future? Here are some of the comments from both general managers to additional questions raised by BoardRoom magazine.
Jeff McFadden: At The Union League of Philadelphia, we strongly believe that in order to continue to appeal to our current members and to future generations of members, we must be more than a city club, we must be a lifestyle club. Gone are the days of supper clubs and golf clubs.
We have cornered the market as a lifestyle club where all members find value in their membership and their families enjoy a wide range of activities and events separately or together. Children grow up learning the value of membership, the traditions of yesterday, the vision for the future and they become vested in the membership.
Our members and their families can enjoy educational programming, recreation, camaraderie, fellowship and fun, all while enjoying member valued pricing. Over the past 15 years every decision has been a calculated move toward being the leader of the club world.
We want to be nationally recognized with a strong regional presence. The next decade is no different. As we put the final touches on our next decade’s strategic plan we are poised to continue our legacy as the No. 1 city club in the country.
Matt Allnatt: City clubs today face a unique challenge of competition, which is not our next door private club, but the influx of the latest-and-greatest restaurants, hotels and bars. That’s not to say that these establishments offer the same haven, but they do ‘up the game’ with respect to what is offered and what is available.
To continue to survive and prosper, we must become even more relevant and convenient. As private city clubs we have the incredible opportunity to continue to be the bastions of family values and upholding traditions while offering the comforts, accessibility and type of experiences and services suited to the times.
Today’s clubs also need to be more visible and transparent. There is still this private club stigma that needs to be separated from what city clubs are actually like. Jonathan Club has always had strong ties to its community. Our history includes many notable Jonathans, early Jonathan Club members, who helped establish Los Angeles and Southern California.
Griffith Observatory, UCLA, Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens and Catalina Island are just some of the institutions founded by our members with the mission to create spaces and institutions for the betterment and enjoyment of the community.
We continue with that same mission today with our JC Service Days, partnership with Medal of Honor Foundation, Heal the Bay and many other organizations committed to our communities.
Do you see your city club’s relevance changing to its members and prospective members? What makes city clubs so appealing for its members? Why?
JM: The Union League of Philadelphia takes great pride in providing our members with the latest and greatest amenities and offerings. With a diverse membership, we recognize that our members’ interests are vast and varied and we aim to continue to provide the most value possible.
By engaging our members through interaction and detailed surveys we have anticipated wants and needs and grown the League now offering three unique locations under one membership at no additional cost to the members.
Our League House in Center City Philadelphia was built in 1865 and remains the heart of the membership. Our satellite facilities, The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale and The Bungalow in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, add outdoor elements not possible in Center City Philadelphia.
Because of strategic planning and visionary leadership, our members enjoy historic Center City Philadelphia, world class golf on our authentic 18-hole Donald Ross golf course, swimming, trap and tennis and fantastic cuisine at both the golf cub and our private dining room in our beach location, The Bungalow.
Because our portfolio is so deep, our members continue to share the privilege of membership with their friends and families. Members often refer to The Union League of Philadelphia as their home away from home. Members are proud to entertain colleagues, friends and families and enjoy showing them the charm of their second home.
MA: At Jonathan Club, we believe we offer a unique environment with impeccable overall facilities: state-of-the art gym and spa, several dining outlets ranging from extravagant to casual, luxurious overnight accommodations, and more. This ‘one-stop-shop’, if you will, of convenience and superior services creates a strong appeal and a special e that’s hard to find.
We offer incredible events and programs: Meet the Author sessions with some of the most notable writers of our times including Nobel Laureates and Senate sessions with diverse member speakers who are all leaders in their professions. We provide a vast range of events, from music bands to food festivals, family-oriented festivities to black-tie galas, wine tastings with some of the most noteworthy winemakers in the world to casual and intimate barkeeper’s events where the attendees learn about a particular spirit and how to make their own specialty cocktails. All these amazing social, family, business and networking opportunities are offered in a safe and friendly environment.
Another unique component of city clubs is the reciprocal program. It offers such a great avenue for members to travel with amazing accommodations at incredible values, all while still having the comforts and safety of their home away from home. It’s like having a good friend anywhere in the country, or the world, you can count on to offer you their home. And to our members that really is priceless.
Has your club witnessed a cultural change and has your membership demographic and profile changed in recent years?
JM: We have seen more of a commitment to our core values of Love of Country, patriotism, service, free enterprise and community by all members, which further strengthens our position as a leading city club.
While our average age of 57 has remained the same for the last 15 years, the activity in the club has grown exponentially. We are seeing more active, engaged members and their families participating in more events and enjoying their memberships.
Our average length of membership is 15 years. We continue to welcome, at record setting trends, the highest quality of members in all demographics with a significant increase in both Millennial members and Baby Boomers who are moving to the city. We work tirelessly to stay in tune with the wants and needs of our growing membership as we look to expand our offerings even further.
MA: It has, and it is one that is less concerned about exclusivity and more concentrated on quality, relevance of facilities, strong values and diversity.
Yes, our membership profile has changed. Members are younger and more casual, but also have obtained their membership on their own and so they have this individual pride in their membership in that it was not inherited or assumed.
What differences-similarities do you see in private city clubs on the East Coast as compared to the West Coast?
JM: The Union League of Philadelphia was founded in 1862 as a patriotic institution during the height of the Civil War. Our club, our motto, Love of Country Leads, and our membership are deeply rooted in tradition and history.
Both play a large role in how the League is shaped today. Each and every decision to bring the League further into the future is weighted by the need to pay homage to our legacy and to show deference to our founders. The League still employs a strict dress code of coat and tie in our Center City House, although we allow business casual dress at our satellite facilities.
Our professional management team and our board are ever mindful of our traditions as we continue to blaze the trail in the club world, fully recognizing that it is a delicate balance our members appreciate.
On the East Coast we are fortunate to enjoy four distinct seasons, all lending themselves to certain types of events and activities. Our three locations allow us the opportunity to provide entertainment, events and dining opportunities based on the season. During the summer the golf club and The Bungalow are popular locations as our members enjoy the outdoor activities available to them. The League House, though the main hub always, is busiest from September through June.
MA: Jonathan Club, established in 1894 as an outlet to host political events and rallies, just one year later, was chartered as a “purely social club” when our members recognized that the social bond was what connected our members. That is what we are about – family, friendship, community and tradition. While our club may seem very formal, and we certainly are to some extent, we are also very mindful about what formed our club. So there is this ‘casualness’ that comes with being with your family and friends that is part of who we are, and to a degree, part of the West Coast.
It doesn’t hurt that we are graced with such amazing weather year-round, which also emphasizes the outdoors and our agriculture, and that we have the nearby wine regions of Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast. Our culinary department lets the ingredients “speak for themselves” because we are blessed with such an amazing environment that affords the opportunity to forge partnerships with the best local farmers, wineries and artisanal breweries.
We also have the strong influence of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, which to a degree creates a ‘bigger demand’ on the types of events and programs we create. When that’s your competition, you have to be the best. It’s great really, it keeps us on our toes and invigorates to always keep striving for extraordinary. Trendsetter, innovative, outside the box, are not typically associated with private clubs, but when we built our Urban Garden, Jonathan Club garnered recognition for creating “the first of its kind in Los Angeles.”
As a city club, can you outline some of your club’s outstanding features and benefits that enhance your ‘member experience?’
JM: Our members are able to enjoy the best of everything with the League’s latest amenities. We now truly offer something for every member. In addition to our authentic offerings and amenities, we are placing our focus on adding new technology that works so well, members don’t even know it’s working.
One of our latest examples is the new custom app launched in November 2015. The custom app helps us enhance our members’ experiences in several unique ways. GPS location alerts are sent to stationary iPads monitored by our doormen, hostesses, caddies etc. informing when a member approaches their area.
This allows our staff to quickly greet each member by name while seeing their individual preferences. This technology helps our staff better assist our members while encouraging professional, but friendly interactions.
Additional features include one touch valet car service request, links to our membership and staff directories, directions and a custom feature called League 311, which allows our members to submit instant feedback with a picture right through the app. Our management team then receives the feedback and reacts to it immediately.
Our custom website, built with responsive design, allows our members to connect to us quickly and easily. Our website offers countless features our members enjoy including forms for reservations for the Inn at the League, the car service, specialty dining, ebooks, an online gift shop, photo and video galleries and more.
Additionally, we produce 2-3 custom videos per year including a custom Year in Review video highlighting the previous year’s events, accomplishments and honors. Our members enjoy the look back and often share the video with friends.
Technology like the app, coupled with our custom website, videos and our presence in social media, allows us to truly stay connected to our members.
Separately, but also very importantly, our commitment and focus on food and beverage has truly impacted League life.
In 2008 we made a commitment to improving our food and beverage offerings and we brought in renowned Chef Martin Hamann to lead the charge. Tireless efforts by many have led to great success. We proudly designed, developed and opened six incredible dining rooms in as many years at all three of our locations.
Food and beverage is now one of the most talked about offerings and certainly one that is most enjoyed by all members. We are very proud of the efforts and the results.
Additionally, our members are able to stay engaged and connected with history and the community through our philanthropic outreach through our three foundations, The Abraham Lincoln Foundation, the Youth Work Foundation and the Scholarship Foundation.
We proudly maintain one of the largest Civil War collections in the country and showcase items from the collection, as well as visiting exhibits, in our world-class museum space in the League House.
MA: Jonathan Club maintains two year-round facilities at two of the most popular locations in southern California: our Town Club in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, with the downtown LA rooftop and urban garden, and our Beach Club on the bluffs of Santa Monica.
We host a summer kids’ camp on the beach, offer members our own “Uber-type” transportation, luxurious overnight accommodations, shoe shine and haircut services, two five-star athletic and wellness facilities complete with state-of-the art equipment, innovative programs and spa services to name a few.
We offer competitive squash programs, cross-generational and unique events including a Food, Beer & Wine Festival, Electric Dance Carnival, wine and mixology programs, music on the roof, concerts on the beach and so much more. We host over 200 events a year that include something for every member, every age group, and a wide range of interests. And we remember that its the “little things” that are priceless. Our goal is for every member to have a membership of memories.
All of which confirms a regrowth of the city club’s appeal, whether on the country’s east coast or west coast.